Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey is fighting to keep her seat for a third term despite an aggressive challenge by self-styled reformer George Gascon, a former LAPD Assistant Chief of Police, Chief of Police in Mesa, Arizona and San Francisco D.A.
Lacey garnered significantly more voter support than Gascon in the March primary election but was ultimately unable to claim the majority necessary to avoid a runoff, pulling in 48.6% of the vote to Gascon’s 28.2%.
But the primary election preceded the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked nationwide protests and fueled calls for more aggressive prosecution of law enforcement officers involved in civilian deaths.
As of the end of July, Lacey had reviewed 258 fatal officer-involved shootings during her two terms as D.A. and brought charges against just one deputy: Luke Liu, who is facing a voluntary manslaughter count in the 2016 on-duty fatal shooting of 26-year-old Francisco Garcia at a Norwalk gas station.
Lacey has, however, filed criminal charges against more than 200 law enforcement officers for murder, sexual assault, domestic violence and financial fraud, according to her office. Of those, 24 law enforcement officers were charged with excessive use-of-force — eight were convicted, six were acquitted and nine cases are pending. One was dismissed after the defendant died.
Lacey has repeatedly said she has no choice but to follow the law and has taken on every shooting and misconduct case she has had a chance to win.
“If you look at my record though, I believe that we’ve been on the right side — we’ve prosecuted those cases that we could, and those cases where we didn’t have the evidence, we did not,” Lacey told Fox11 in June.
Gascon — who was a Los Angeles police officer for 28 years and a police chief in Mesa, Arizona, and San Francisco before serving as D.A. in Northern California — claims he would be more aggressive in filing criminal charges in deadly shootings and says Lacey’s tenure represents a failure.
During an early October debate, he accused the D.A. of being stuck in the past.
“We can look forward,” Gascon was quoted as saying by the Daily News. “We can begin a journey into a 21st century mode of law that is more humane, that is more thoughtful when it comes to race, and that is going to make us safe.”
However, Gascon did not prosecute any shootings during his tenure in the Bay Area, and some of his past comments seem to echo Lacey’s rationale, saying the legal standard was too hard to meet. His campaign points out that none of the shooting deaths during his tenure involved unarmed suspects.
Gascon did lend his support to Assembly Bill 931, which unsuccessfully sought to change the standard for deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary.” He also co-authored Proposition 47, which Lacey opposed, and which reduced some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors.
The incumbent Lacey — elected in 2012 as the first woman and first Black prosecutor to hold the post — has the support of many unions, including those representing the police, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and deputy district attorneys. That backing would ordinarily put her in a position of significant strength. However, at a time when many are calling for rethinking the role of law enforcement, police support may be a negative signal for some voters.
Lacey has also lost some high-profile backers, including Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, who withdrew his endorsement earlier this month, tweeting that he was “proud to endorse @GeorgeGascon for L.A. District Attorney.”
In comments to the Associated Press, Lacey said those who have withdrawn their support are attempting to prove their lack of racial bias.
“They have guilt over racial injustice and everybody’s trying to prove that, you know, that they’re not racist,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s been translated into `Who’s the more progressive candidate? What’s the more progressive stance?’ You can be in favor of public safety and be against racism, and that’s who I am.”
Lacey has the support of four Los Angeles County supervisors, who have praised her work on jail diversion programs for mentally ill individuals and pretrial release.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is running for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, broke ranks with the rest of the board to endorse Gascon.
“Our values and priorities are aligned when it comes to ending mass incarceration, investing in diversion, re-entry and real mental health solutions for the homeless,” he said.
In an October debate, Lacey accused Gascon of having left San Francisco in a “mess” and said “he looked the other way” when it came to drug deals in plain sight and car thefts, pointing to a sharp rise in property crimes.
Gascon countered that crime rose at a faster rate in Los Angeles.
Gascon is backed by heavy hitters like Gov. Gavin Newsom and vice presidential candidate and Sen. Kamala Harris, but also has plenty of detractors, even among progressives, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
“(Gascon) has a long history of going whichever way the winds blow, saying whatever suits his political purposes and only looking out for himself,” Breed said in a statement.
The union representing Lacey’s prosecutors says Gascon relied on Lacey’s help to build reform-minded efforts like a conviction review unit. Lacey’s Los Angeles-based CRU unit comprehensively reviewed 350 cases, leading to a dozen dismissals and the complete exoneration of four wrongly convicted defendants, according to the Association of Deputy District Attorneys.
Now Gascon is criticizing that group, “while completely ignoring the fact that his version of the CRU screened just seven cases in three years, `reviewed’ only five of them, and didn’t exonerate anyone,” according to the ADDA.
The race has drawn national attention and big money donors from outside of Los Angeles. Of roughly $14 million in campaign funds reported as of late October, Gascon has a slight edge over Lacey, based on a recent surge in contributions, and much of his support lies with wealthy donors, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times. New York billionaire and progressive donor George Soros has contributed $1.5 million, while Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his philanthropist wife, Patty Quillin, have written checks totaling more than $2 million in an effort to elect Gascon, according to The Times.
The majority of Lacey’s financial support comes from law enforcement groups, including checks of $1 million or more from each of the unions representing sheriff’s deputies, Los Angeles police officers and state corrections officers.
While fighting on the debate stage and the campaign trail, Lacey is also facing a lawsuit filed two weeks before the election by Black Lives Matter and other advocacy groups. The civil complaint stems from a protest staged outside her house early one morning in March. Lacey’s husband could be seen in a video posted online pointing a gun at protesters on his front porch, telling them, “Get off of my porch. I will shoot you — I don’t care who you are.”
Members of the group claim they knocked on the door before 5:45 a.m. simply to request a meeting Lacey had promised them earlier. In the complaint, they allege negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery.
The district attorney held a news conference the day of the incident to say her husband acted out of fear. She said she had been threatened and confronted in her private life because of her job. She also said she believed the protest was designed to embarrass her rather than start a dialogue.
Attorneys for the Laceys said the lawsuit was an attempt to influence the outcome of the election and without merit.
Those who know Lacey well cite her compassion and sense of fairness. Deputy District Attorney John McKinney, who has prosecuted a number of high-profile cases and served under three Los Angeles County district attorneys, calls Lacey a woman of great character.
Melina Abdullah, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, which has led several protests against Lacey, urged voters to turn out for the race.
“Everyone understands what’s at stake with the presidential race, but what affects us most on a daily basis is the D.A.,” Abdullah said in remarks to The Guardian. “The D.A. determines what crimes are prosecuted, what crimes go unenforced — and whether we will continue to lock up Black and Brown people with reckless abandon.”